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Really RealGuitar

MusicLAB's virtual acoustic guitar instrument By Frank Moldstad

RealGuitar's main interface
If you've got a skilled acoustic guitar player like John Mayer sitting around the house, or if your name is James Taylor, you can stop reading now. Even if you're an ordinary acoustic player with decent chops, a MIDI acoustic guitar emulator probably won't grab you either.

But let's say you can't play guitar and don't have access to a good player (unless you live in Nashville, where there are 1,352 guitar pickers). Or,  you're a keyboard player in need of a good acoustic guitar sound. MusicLAB's RealGuitar version 1.5 virtual instrument ($149 list) is the closest thing I've heard to an acoustic guitar player in a box. A VSTi, RTAS and DXi plugin for PC and Mac that also runs as a standalone app, it can simulate eight different acoustic guitars, from steel-picked to 12-string. A 555 MB sample set is included. Among the new features in version 1.5 is the ability to play MIDI patterns, explained in more detail below.

MusicLAB, a Russian company founded in 1991 by a group of musicians, composers and software developers, has developed a comprehensive approach to acoustic guitar emulation. For each guitar patch, the developers sampled every note on each of the six guitar strings up to the 16th fret (up to the 19th fret on the high E). Chords are detailed and full, and single notes have a surprising ring to them. The illusion is helped by the fact that RealGuitar sounds are based on more than just sampled strings. For instance, there are subtle details such as fret noise (user adjustable) when switching chords. And if you listen closely, you can hear the slight echo of a guitar body.

To play a Chord, you select Chords mode, one of five performance modes available. The others are Solo, Harmony, Bass & Chord and Bass & Pick. Basic major chords can be played with one key in Chords mode; for minor chords and more complex constructions, such as C9sus4, the defining notes in the chord must be played. RealGuitar can detect a total of 26 chord types, covering most needs. It also detects chord inversions and note combinations in every type except Major 6 and Minor 6.

The playing is done through a MIDI keyboard or controller. In some ways, this is the biggest hurdle to a creating a convincing guitar performance. Guitarists think differently than keyboard players because of how the instrument is tuned and the physical characteristics of a stringed instrument. It's as if keyboard players think linearly, and guitarists laterally. Keyboard players might charge into a scale or chordal pattern that's totally unnatural for the guitar but is normal on a keyboard. That could be good for an off-kilter part, and the program allows you to play chromatically or any way you want. But for a natural-sounding guitar part, it's not so good to have keyboard attributes.

So MusicLAB has included some features to compensate for these differences. The program does a clever bit of translation, for one. Chords played on the keyboard in Chords mode are reconstructed in guitar versions, and displayed on a virtual fretboard in the middle of RealGuitar's interface, showing finger positions on a guitar fretboard. Whenever a chord or single note is played on the keyboard, dots representing the finger positions appear on the fretboard. This visual aid helps keyboard players maintain perspective on how a guitarist would play.

The program also allows you to specify neck positions for playing, from first position through fourth. A capo can be positioned anywhere on the neck, which is very helpful in achieving certain guitar voicings.

RealGuitar also addresses some of the tactile aspects of guitar playing, such as strumming, string damping and pick/body noises. When you connect an external keyboard, RealGuitar divides it into three zones. The Main zone is the middle keys, extending from E1 to B4. The two other zones, the bottom keys and the top keys, are for repeating whatever key is played in the Main zone. The octave key in the lower zone triggers a strumming behavior while the original chord key (a downstroke) is held. Keys on either side of the lower octave trigger up and down strumming strumming motions. When you alternate back and forth between the original and the repeat keys, you get an upstroke and a downstroke that with practice can be developed into a realistic strumming action. Strumming velocity is also controllable -- a sharp attack on the key gives a hard strum, a light touch on the key produces a slower, softer strum, with adjustable parameters. Plus, the volume of pick/body noises and fret noises can be raised or lowered with a Noises fader in RealGuitars setup menu.

String damping, an essential acoustic guitar technique, can also be incorporated into a RealGuitar performance. The program assigns the bottom two notes and the top two notes on the keyboard to a damping sample. Damping uses the same technique as strumming -- rocking back and forth between a damping key and a chord or note. Like all the parameters in RealGuitar, damping velocity and duration is user adjustable.  

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Related Keywords:MusicLAB, RealGuitar, acoustic guitar, virtual instrument, VSTi, RTAS, DXi

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